It has been exactly one year since I traveled 44 hours to Angola to interview Didier Drogba, the Chelsea and Ivory Coast superstar, for a story in Sports Illustrated magazine leading up to last year's World Cup. He couldn't have been more accommodating, spending 90 minutes talking to me in his private bungalow on the heavily fortified Ivory Coast team base in Cabinda during the African Cup of Nations.
What impressed me most about Drogba the person was his social conscience: He was using his celebrity status to help Ivory Coast, announcing plans to put money from his endorsements toward building a hospital in his native Abidjan. Drogba the player was doing pretty well too. After winning his second African Player of the Year award, he would go on to seize the 2009-10 Premier League title with Chelsea, his third, and win the Golden Boot with 29 league goals.
A broken right arm slowed Drogba during the World Cup, and after a sizzling start Chelsea has struggled over the past six weeks in the Premier League, dropping from first place to its current fourth-place spot in the table, seven points behind leader Manchester United (which has a game in hand). Drogba, 32, has dealt with a number of physical issues: hernia surgery in July and malaria, of all things, in October. He has eight league goals on the season, tied for ninth in the Premiership.
Last Friday (the day before Chelsea's 2-0 win against Blackburn) I got a call from Drogba while I was driving on Interstate-95 in Maryland. I pulled over to the side of the road and enjoyed a catch-up conversation over the next half-hour. We talked in part for a magazine story (coming soon), but he also addressed the goings-on at Chelsea these days. Here's our interview, edited for length and clarity:
SI.com: Chelsea looked invincible in the first part of the season, and now the team has been struggling in the league. What happened? And what needs to get better?
Drogba: What happened is just that the season is very long. I said during that time that maybe some difficult moments would come, so we'd have to be sure that these moments wouldn't be long. Unfortunately, it's longer than what we thought it would be. We've had a lot of injured players, and the team has changed from last year. We lost five great players in [Michael] Ballack, [Juliano] Belletti, Deco, [Ricardo] Carvalho and Joe Cole. And we replaced them with young players like [Jeffrey] Bruma, [Gael] Kakuta, [Josh] McEachran and [Patrick] van Aanholt. They are good players, but they need time to adapt.
SI.com: You've had eight goals in the Premier League this season. How do you feel about your own play personally this year?
Drogba: Well, it's maybe not what I was expecting, but I've had malaria and surgery before the beginning of the season for my hernia to make sure I'll be O.K. for the next few years. I won't say I'm happy because we're having a difficult moment, but when you look at the amount of games I've played and the number of goals and assists I've had, I know it's not the best, but it's not bad. And I can continue to improve that. I'm not worried about my performance. What is really important for me is for the team to go back to the winning way. If we win the league and I score only 10 goals, for me it's fine.
SI.com: You mentioned the malaria that you had. How bad was it?
Drogba: It was really bad, so bad that it lasted two months. It should be something that could be solved in a few weeks. At first the tests didn't show that it was malaria. The doctor thought it was flu, so that's why we lost time. While we thought it was flu I was playing, because for me I can handle flu. I lost fitness, but I was working hard and trying to help the team. For me to be playing now, it's already a good start because it was a difficult moment for me to have malaria. Very difficult.
SI.com: There has been talk that the in-season departure of assistant coach Ray Wilkins has hurt Chelsea. What do you think?
Drogba: He was part of the team for a bit more than two years. But even when he was there we lost some games. Last year we had a bad moment as well when he was there. I think it's not about Ray leaving the club. It's about the players not being able to play at their best, including me. For sure we'll win a lot of games and lose some games, but it's not an individual that would make a big difference like this in our results. I think it's collective, the team.
SI.com: You're nine [now seven] points behind Manchester United, which has a game in hand. Is it possible for Chelsea to catch up and still win the title?
Drogba: I think first of all instead of thinking about winning the title we should think about winning two consecutive games! Then we'll see. It's not a joke, it's true. We have to think about winning two consecutive games. That's being realistic, and it shows how bad we've been doing for the last month and a half. It's something that has to change, and I think we're not far [from that]. It's going to come back. Not that I'm not worried. But now everybody is coming back from injuries, so it is going to help us a lot.
SI.com: Frank Lampard has said there is a lack of confidence right now in the Chelsea squad. Do you agree with that?
Drogba: When you don't win games, yeah, you lose confidence. That's normal. The only way to get back your confidence and be able to say that we can still win the league would be to win two or three consecutive games and then see how we feel and say, yes, maybe it's possible or it is not. But I agree with him.
SI.com: Chelsea has Copenhagen in the Champions League Round of 16 starting February 22. Are you confident about Champions League this year?
Drogba: It's going to be a difficult game, but I think we're going to be over this difficult time for the club. I'm confident about this game and confident about the Champions League, because we have a great team. When the knockout stage starts I think we'll be good. We'll do everything to be good.
SI.com: In early December your charitable foundation had its second annual gala in London and raised more than $500,000 in new funds [$100,000 coming from sponsor Pepsi] for the construction of your hospital in Ivory Coast. How did it go?
Drogba: It was great to collect some money to build this hospital. I was really happy, because it's not easy to organize a second event and to have so much quality response from people. Normally they come for the first one and for the second one the energy goes down. But this one was bigger. We had more celebrities [including Akon, Russell Brand and Nicole Scherzinger] coming and getting involved in the foundation. We're not far from starting to develop the hospital. I'm really grateful to all the people that were involved in one way or another in this work.
SI.com: There's uncertainty right now in Ivory Coast politics after the presidential election. Is that impacting the hospital at all?
Drogba: It's not easy in this situation. We don't really know what's going to happen, so everything is being put on hold for now. We're waiting for things to be more quiet, and then we'll go again. But we will do it. For sure, we will do it.